SmartCrowdz is a startup in Columbus, Ohio, creates websites and mobile apps for event managers.
The founders see SmartCrowdz as a mass participation platform that can help event managers not only plan and manage activities and conferences but also market and monetize those events.
The company, which has 11 employees, is looking to gain more hotel, conference, and meeting organizer clients. It has raised nearly $4 million.
Its secret sauce? In the company's words:
"We have flipped the revenue approach of the traditional players where they charge significant fees to license and implement event websites and mobile apps, and add steep markups to credit card processing fees for ticket sales, registration fees and donations.
The SmartCrowdz approach focuses on monetizing the traffic that event sites see."
A Q&A with CEO Mike Lanese:
Tell us how you founded the company, why and what made you decide to jump in and create the business.
I served as CEO of ClearSaleing, an analytics firm that helped companies measure the effectiveness of their advertising campaigns for six years, through its acquisition by eBay in 2011.
I was deployed to Iraq as a member of the Army Reserves during the Arab Spring. I witnessed how the military's technology would scan social media to determine the time and location of planned demonstrations.
It made me aware of the importance of digital tools for communicating to dispersed groups alerts and alternative times, places and approach avenues for gatherings.
Upon my return from Iraq, I shared my thoughts with my long time business partner, Randy Smith, who was president and co-founder of ClearSaleing. From there, SmartCrowdz was born.
Size of the team, names of founders, management roles and key personnel?
Eleven full-time employees, going to 13, 2 part-timers, and several contractors
We have raised nearly $2 million in equity and issued another $2 million in convertible notes. The largest investors in the Company are the 3 founders, Mike Lanese, Randy Smith and Ryan Memmelaar.
The remaining investor pool is made up primarily of angel investors who have had successful exits in previous companies with the founders.
Estimation of market size?
The event market is extremely fragmented and is currently not a focus for any of the large technology players. The market for a comprehensive event platform is large and encompasses numerous segments.
Due to the fact that SmartCrowdz is offered as a SaaS application in the cloud, there are no geographic limitations on where SmartCrowdz can be accessed, thereby, opening up global opportunities for the Company.
The vast majority of these organizations are managing there events using disparate spreadsheets, email, social media and sticky notes as their solution.
The Company is, to a large extent, defining a new market for a comprehensive event marketing, management and monetization platform. To the extent that direct competitors exist, their offerings have been focused on point solutions and single-feature approaches.
No current competitor provides a comprehensive platform dedicated to the Company’s market. Some of the narrow-focused competition includes:
• Facebook – offers functionality for event set up, group management and messaging.
• Twitter – offers functionality for broadcast messaging.
• Google – offers functionality for group management.
• Basecamp – offers functionality for project and task management.
• Meetup – offers functionality for event set up.
• Eventbrite – offers functionality for event invitations and ticket sales
• Cvent – heavy, installed solution that focuses on custom event website development
Revenue model and strategy for profitability?
SmartCrowdz’ business model was intended to disrupt and change the tired and outdated business paradigm offered by current event technology vendors.
So we have flipped the revenue approach of the traditional players where they charge significant fees to license and implement event websites and mobile apps, and add steep markups to credit card processing fees for ticket sales, registration fees and donations.
The SmartCrowdz approach focuses on monetizing the traffic that event sites see.
What problem does the business solve?
For event planners and managers, such as travel agents, event websites and mobile apps are:
(1) expensive to build,
(2) current vendors offer point solutions where no vendor has an integrated solution that allows event managers to manage all aspects of their event, and
(3) event websites and mobile apps take a long time to set up and are complicated to use.
SmartCrowdz addresses these problems by:
• delivering a simple, automated, template-based event set-up process that allows event managers and planners to create a robust event website in minutes, not days or weeks, as with current solutions.
• providing a single, comprehensive event application that addresses each of the 3 M’s of successful events (Marketing, Management and Monetization) vs. an array of disparate piecemeal point solutions.
• offering unrestricted, no-fee access to event managers, participants and attendees, instead of expensive licensing and usage fees charged by current event technology providers.
How did the initial idea evolve and were there changes/any pivots along the way in the early stages?
We have made a couple of major strategic pivots to our business approach based on market feedback so far in our Company’s history.
The biggest transition was the expansion of the platform from event management only functionality to an end-to-end platform that allows event managers to not only efficiently plan and manage their events but also to market their events to attendees and participants, monetize their events through ticket sales, registrations and donations, and actively engage event attendees.
At first, our focus was exclusively on mass participation events but we soon realized that based on our pricing model (free) and speed and simplicity of our technology that it had application for events of any size or type.
Recognizing the near ubiquitous penetration of smartphones in our target segments, we also expanded our event technology from just the web to any device, including mobile devices and tablets in addition to just laptops.
Why should people or companies use the business?
With the SmartCrowdz travel and tourism website and mobile app, travel agents and tour companies can increase the excitement, engagement and overall travel experience of their clients by:
• Publishing an overview of the vacation or tour with its main destinations and activities, including a personalized background for the family vacation or tour group site, along with a custom photo, icon or image
• Developing, editing and publishing a vacation or trip itinerary and schedule with all relevant travel and contact information, including links to websites of major destinations, attractions and points of interest
• Creating an interactive map with map markers for all airports, hotels, attractions and sites with the ability to get directions
• Assigning important tasks, with reminders, to travellers that need to be completed before and during the vacation or trip
• Posting alerts for travellers that note changes to the schedule or itinerary, or important reminders
• Uploading pictures of and links to the main sites and attractions, so everyone can get excited about the upcoming trip, and letting the travellers do the same during the trip
• On-going hosting of the vacation or tour site that permanently memorializes the trip
What is the strategy for raising awareness and the customer/user acquisition?
Our overall marketing program is comprised of 4 major components:
(1) a segment-specific (including travel and tourism) marketing campaign comprised of direct email and telesales to marketing decision makers in our target segments, segment-specific online advertising and SEO, and conference attendance;
(2) a marketing campaign comprised of the same elements but directed at professional event planners and managers who are members of event planning and management organizations such as MPI and PCMA;
(3) an engagement and training campaign aimed at event managers and planners who are already using SmartCrowdz aimed increasing their proficiency and use of our platform; and
(4) a marketing and advertising campaign that drives event attendees and participants looking for events to participate in to the SmartCrowdz Event Directory.
Where do you see the company in three years time and what specific challenges do you anticipate having to overcome?
Our business mission is to become the de-facto standard event marketing, management and monetization platform in our target market segments, including the travel, tourism and hospitality industry.
We will continue to remove the structural barriers to our growth and adoption rate with creative, frictionless pricing models, segment-specific messaging and marketing programs, and comprehensive yet intuitive and easy-to-use functionality.
What is wrong with the travel, tourism and hospitality industry that it requires a startup like yours to help it out?
It’s not a matter of what is wrong with the industry but rather what are some new opportunities presented to the industry as a result of technology advances.
Obviously competition in the travel, tourism and hospitality industry is pretty fierce, so traditional travel agents and tour companies need to find new ways to reach their customers, provide additional value to them, and more actively engage with them in a meaningful way.
SmartCrowdz provides that opportunity by providing a travel agent or tour company with a platform where they can develop a personalized website and mobile app for the vacationer or tour group, that provides the benefits highlighted under Question #9 above.
What other technology company (in or outside of travel) would you consider yourselves most closely aligned to in terms of culture and style... and why?
We are adopting a lot of the business strategies and pricing models of the social media players and by doing so, disrupting the old, traditional event technology business paradigm, so strategically and culturally, we are somewhat aligned with the social media companies, though with a Midwest flare.
Which company would be the best fit to buy your startup?
Any of the large online publishers, social media platforms or companies that want highly targeted exposure (segment and geographic) to rapidly growing, dynamic event communities.
Describe your startup in three words?
Cool Event Technology
On the one hand, SmartCrowdz has an unusually promising executive team. Its co-founders have previously succeeded in launching a digital startup and guiding it to acquisition by eBay.
On the downside, to win at MICE, they may need to focus on MICE. It's a worry that the company is trying to appeal to many other segments, too, such as charities, rock concerts, political rallies, college sports, and even wedding parties.
Maybe a broad strategy will work, given that the platform can serve many types of clients. There are over 1.3 million organizations that run events/activities and more than 250 million active participants across those segments.
Yet meetings and events organizers are, given the nature of their business, person-to-person-centered. Facetime matters. So it's a red flag when none of the top SmartCrowdz executives has a deep familiarity with either MICE or travel broadly and that the team hasn't yet been seen much on the trade circuit.
Also of concern is the distraction to the company attempting to have a consumer-facing listings service for events. Conventional wisdom would argue that a B2C effort would require its own mindset and consume all of the energy, separate from building a business-to-business operation.
There's a risk SmartCrowdz may become a jack of all trades and a master of none.
That said, the company looks otherwise like it's on the right track. It has identified a pain point that isn't being adequately served at the price point its targeting. It has locked on to a huge market with large budgets.
It appears to be managing its own finances well and not burning through its funding.
On balance, Tnooz thinks the executives have a chance to build yet another Internet company to make the Buckeye state proud.
For more on MICE, see Tnooz's earlier article on the tech-led future for meetings, conferences and exhibitions.